Since ancient times, new beginnings–that’s carnival. It’s our craving to shuck memories of the slings and arrows that paralyze us. New Year’s resolutions disappear in the first head wind, but carnival has been serious about new beginnings since the Greeks partied to praise Dionysus and the Romans thanked Bacchus for wine and flora, fertility heavy on their minds.
Murdered by Titans, Dionysus/Bacchus was reborn. His worship generated irrational exuberance, frenzied revels by women, and much early theater and standup comedy. When condemned by Rome as a sinister source of vice and revolutionary unrest, the frolic was periodically rejuvenated by slaves and poor free men.
These traditions—celebrating man as a free being without hierarchy—blended easily with the various pagan rites of spring practiced by Germanic and other tribes. The Church tried to suppress carnival but ultimately decided if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, layering on compatible beliefs as they co-opted the locals. Carnival, or carne vale, comes from Latin, and means “flesh, farewell,” as Carnival heralds in the Lenten fast that leads to Easter. The mix with local and aboriginal beliefs creates an amazing array of traditions, extending to the New World and locales as far flung as India.
Most Americans know Carnival though New Orleans' Mardi Gras, or through Rio or Trinidad, but the roots are firmly in Europe. Napoleon and Hitler banned Carnival. Its anti-authoritarian roots quickly grew back.
For years I’ve shouldered the task of chronicling carnivals across different cultures—sense of duty. With anti-authoritarian and satirical roots planted by the ancients, Carnival is a superb barometer of how people view the forces bumping their lives around, as well as of the U.S. image abroad.
One sojourn included sleepy towns in Portugal. In Torres Verdes, the centerpiece—not a float, the centerpiece—was called “Bushlandia”. Artfully rendered, five or so stories high, the sculpture offered up Bush as a primitive king in furs, wielding a jeweled club and a scepter with a golden skull. He wore a crucifix on which was a soldier. Bush sat within the jaws of giant skull beneath the crown of the Stature of Liberty, about which crawled wormy critters in turbans. Other heads of the coalition of the willing—old Europe, new Europe, always confusing—were in his court. Prime Minister Tony Blair fanned Bush with feathers and scratched his backside. On the sculpture’s flip side, a bearded fellow hauled a wheelbarrow of explosives. Beneath him a government minister struggled to feed the world’s poor children. Nuclear missiles flanked Bush. Penguins blew time-out whistles as toxic waste washed over nature. To the beat of Brazilian bands amid the samba gyrations of hotties, all revelers passed before Bush. A small town in Portugal made a colossal comment on U.S. leadership.
Carnival jabs are thrown throughout the world. My first carnival was in Cologne, Germany. Barely a month after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke in 1998; I nearly kicked my camera off my balcony, lunging for it as a masterpiece of German engineering rounded Koln Cathedral. A grinning Bill Clinton, big as a Mack truck, groped a peeved Statue of Liberty, followed by a padlocked White House atop which stood Uncle Sam throwing blood sausages to a crowd roaring approval.
They could take a joke even if finger-waggers like Joe Lieberman and members of the pious press couldn’t. Germans couldn’t understand America’s mania over this fiasco as more pressing worldly concerns tumbled into the fire.
No one brought out the carnival knives like Bush. Some years back, despite German officials urging softer blows prior to a Bush visitation, a Cologne float had Bush shooting flames from a cross fashioned like a machine-gun. On another, Uncle Sam bent over, trousers down, while the German Chancellor climbed a ladder up his backside, with nose a shade darker. In a later carnival, Angela Merkel fared better, portrayed as Elastic Girl, while Bush walked barefoot through bowls of fat labeled “Kyoto”, “New Orleans”, and “Atomic Conflict”.
A carnival in Dusseldorf once offered up Iran’s president as a rocket, caught by a United Nations net, (not, ahem, a U.S. net).
The greatest punches are thrown in Basel, Switzerland. This unique Protestant take begins in a blacked-out city at 4 AM the Monday after Ash Wednesday. Thousands of costumed pipers and drummers accompany huge gas-lit lanterns painted with satirical images of political figures and issues of the day. A carnival favorite, Silvio Berlusconi—likened to a hybrid of the Godfather and Benito Mussolini, running his media empire like an Orwellian villain—will no doubt once again be prominent. The Swiss miss Bush, another favorite—and boy did they work him over—but while Bush now keeps a low profile, Berlusconi offers up new material.
If small towns in Portugal can use Carnival to speak truth to power, why can’t Washington? The threat of ridicule at Carnival might rein in excesses, perhaps an invasion.
A modest proposal: bring Carnival to Washington. The city may not have the religious roots of many carnival strongholds, but no place can fake religion like Washington. Imagine Carnival’s potential in the Nation’s capital. True, it’s a challenging venue where fewer people can take a joke. On the other hand, we’ve no shortage of folks willing to play the fool.
What richer vein to mine than the players of the 2012 election? Envision a float with Karl Rove and his super PAC backers shredding dollar bills into confetti blown from a cannon at the crowd, or simply tossing dollar bills in lieu of beads. Sheldon Adelson, the Vegas and Macau casino magnate reported to have spent $150 million in the 2012 election, could have a float shaped as a giant craps table, with potential suitors for his 2016 blessing throwing the dice. Or perhaps Adelson and his political entourage would burn an effigy, not of the carnival spirit, but of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Maybe Adelson could lend some showgirls, always welcome in Carnival. Newt Gingrich could appear as Dr. Frankenstein, inventing people. And what else for Mitt Romney than a float with a dog driving a racecar with #47 on it, sponsored by Delphi Automotive, with Mitt strapped on top? Perhaps a float with debate podiums showcasing Joe Biden, made up as The Joker, debating Paul Ryan, made up as Eddie Munster.
From around the world, pickings are good. Kim Jong Un could ride astride a giant onion with a “Sexiest Man Alive” banner. Silvio Berlusconi on a float of a television news studio, surrounded by nightclub dancers, tax accountants and a frustrated jailor-in-waiting. Dedicate a float to the world’s richest communists, perhaps China’s princelings, or former KGB officials. Portray Afghanistan officials emptying out the Bank of Kabul as warlords divvy up bribes for mineral rights. Pakistan officials sit in a toll booth for U.S. military supplies, or conduct a scavenger hunt for Bin Laden souvenirs. A Vatican float would put a butler at the helm. Castro could be Lazarus. The President of Egypt might do the King Tut Strut. Depict Bibi Netanyahu hiding his Romney/Ryan yard signs, or chasing the peace process with a drone. Hamas as the pirates of Never-Neverland; Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a standup comic. A rogues gallery of dictators is easy enough. Taliban schoolmasters. Press intrusiveness into private lives could be represented by Rupert Murdoch wearing East German bugging equipment from “The Lives of Others”.
How about twin socialites in mink-trimmed camouflage guarding generals? An authoress at a book booth signing copies of “All In”?
Bankers, anyone? Where does one begin with bankers? Lined up at the “bailout bonus window”? Their lawyers? Their lobbyists? Captured regulators? Senators carrying buckets of water for them? A gilded revolving door between Wall Street and government appointments? Take a cue from writer Matt Taibbi: portray Goldman Sachs as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money”—now that’s a carnival float ready to roll.
Perhaps a float showcasing the one percent on strike from job creation. A Wonderland Tea Party complete with the Koch brothers as the Mad Hatter and March Hare. President Obama as Don Quixote riding a giant lame duck into battle. Super PACs pouring money into funnels in politicians mouths—money being speech—while five Supreme Court justices take turns striking poses as the monkeys insistently oblivious to appearance of mischief.
Imagine Donald Trump as Rapunzel trapped in Trump Tower—or, soon, the Old Post Office tower—his strawberry-golden tresses braided with birth certificates from Kenya. Carnival’s long tradition of cross-dressing, poking fun at gender roles, might lend some style to the debate over same-sex marriage. A drill team of men wearing burkas would be a good extension. Undecided voters as whirling dervishes? Gerrymandered districts as Rorschach tests? Somewhere there’s a theme for WikiLeaks, climate change deniers, journalists recycling press releases, elected judges putting in the fix for contributors, Texas school board members challenging evolution, beset upon by giant Darwin finches. Congressional lemmings running over the Fiscal Cliff. The Internet as Pandora’s Box. The Electoral College throwing dunce caps to voters not in swing states. Drones flying overhead could make parades ever more exciting. Nominate Pinocchio as Carnival King.
Some things are not so funny—it’s a fine line between humor and pathos. Satire can only sustain so much tragedy before it turns sour. There’s not much to be done with Syria, for example, that isn’t pulled down by reality.
But consider carnival’s pagan roots, the rites of spring chasing the winter demons, to hopeful fertility, to planting anew. Carnival remains irrepressible despite authority’s many stompings over the centuries. When Carnival collided with the Church, it softened with themes of redemption and renewal. The carnival spirit, burned in effigy, departs taking the woes of the year, leaving all with a clean slate.
Has there ever been a city more in need of a do-over than Washington?
This Gallery of Moments was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's January/February 2013 print edition.